How the Church Built Western Civilization

Interview With Historian Thomas Woods Jr.

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CORAM, New York, SEPT. 26, 2005 ( Contrary to popular opinion, the Catholic Church historically has been the champion of scientific, economic, legal and social progress.

So says Thomas Woods Jr., history professor at Suffolk County Community College and author of «How the Church Built Western Civilization» (Regnery).

Woods shared with ZENIT how the Church has contributed to science, the development of free-market economies, Western legal systems and international law, and why Catholic intellectual and cultural figures desperately need to redeem Western civilization.

Q: How did it come to be that the Church is considered the enemy of progress, freedom, human rights, science, and just about everything else modernity champions, when in fact your book claims that the Catholic Church is at the origin of these phenomena?

Woods: There are many reasons for this phenomenon, but I’ll confine myself to one. It is much easier to propagate historical myth than most people realize.

Take, for instance, the idea — which we were all taught in school — that in the Middle Ages everyone thought the world was flat. This, as Jeffrey Burton Russell has shown, is a 19th-century myth that was deliberately concocted to cast the Church in a bad light. It couldn’t be further from the truth.

The matter of Galileo, which most people know only in caricature, has fueled some of this fire. But it is both illegitimate and totally misleading to extrapolate from the Galileo case to the broader conclusion that the Church has historically been hostile to science.

It may come as a surprise to some readers, but the good news is that modern scholarship — say, over the past 50 to 100 years or so — has gone a long way toward refuting these myths and setting the record straight.

Scarcely any medievalist worth his salt would today repeat the caricatures of the Middle Ages that were once common currency, and mainstream historians of science would now be embarrassed to repeat the old contention that the relationship between religion and science in the West has been a history of unremitting warfare — as Andrew Dickson White famously contended a century ago.

Q: Can you briefly describe the Church’s particular contributions to the origins and development of modern science?

Woods: Let’s begin with a few little-known facts. The first person to measure the rate of acceleration of a freely falling body was Father Giambattista Riccioli. Father Nicholas Steno is considered the father of geology. The father of Egyptology was Father Athanasius Kircher, and the man often cited as the father of atomic theory was Father Roger Boscovich.

The Jesuits brought Western science all over the world. In the 20th century they so dominated the study of earthquakes that seismology became known as «the Jesuit science.»

Some Catholic cathedrals were built to function as the world’s most precise solar observatories, and the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna was used to verify Johannes Kepler’s theory of elliptical planetary orbits.

The science chapter of «How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization» is by far the longest. In addition to discussing examples like the ones I’ve just mentioned, it also notes that certain aspects of Catholic teaching — including the idea of God as orderly and even mathematical, thus making possible the idea of autonomous natural laws — lent themselves to the development of modern science.

Q: One question you have examined in particular in your books is the Church’s role in the development of free-market economies. Many historians, including Catholics, claim that it was only with the Enlightenment and Adam Smith that Western nations were able to expunge «medieval» notions of economics and bring about the Industrial Revolution. Why do you think this is a misreading of history?

Woods: Recent scholarship has discovered that medieval economic thought, particularly in the High and Late Middle Ages, was far more modern and sophisticated than was once thought.

Many scholars, but above all Raymond de Roover, have shown that these thinkers possessed a deeper understanding and appreciation of market mechanisms, and were more sympathetic to a free economy, than traditional portrayals would suggest.

In general they did not believe, as has been commonly alleged, in an objectively ascertainable «just price» of a good, or that the state should enforce such prices across the board. To the contrary, the Scholastics were deeply indebted to Roman law, resurrected in the High Middle Ages, which described the value of a good as what it could commonly be sold for.

The common estimation of the market in effect determined the just price. Debate and discussion on this matter continues, but no serious scholar has been so foolish as to reject de Roover’s findings root and branch.

I develop this point at even greater length in my book «The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy,» which has received the endorsements of the economics chairmen at Christendom College and the University of Dallas.

An interesting tidbit, by the way, that I discuss in «How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization» is that at the very time Henry VIII was engaged in the suppression of England’s monasteries, those monks were on the verge of developing dedicated blast furnaces for the production of cast iron. Henry may have delayed the Industrial Revolution for two and a half centuries.

Q: One of the more interesting claims of your book is that Western legal systems developed from canon law. How was this possible considering the seemingly incongruous subject matter?

Woods: What I argue is that canon law served as a model for developing Western states seeking to codify and systematize their own legal systems. Harold Berman, the great scholar of Western law, contends that the first modern legal system in the Western world was the Church’s canon law.

And that canon law, particularly as codified in Gratian’s «Concordance of Discordant Canons,» served as a model of what Western states sought to accomplish.

Scholars of Church law showed the barbarized West how to take a patchwork of custom, statutory law and countless other sources, and produce from them a coherent legal order whose structure was internally consistent and in which previously existing contradictions were synthesized or otherwise resolved.

Moreover, the subject matter of canon law was not as far removed from that of civil law as we might think.

For example, the Church had jurisdiction over marriage. The canon law of marriage held that a valid marriage required the free consent of both the man and the woman, and that a marriage could be held invalid if it took place under duress or if one of the parties entered into the marriage on the basis of a mistake regarding either the identity or some important quality of the other person.

«Here,» says Berman, «were the foundations not only of the modern law of marriage but also of certain basic elements of modern contract law, namely, the concept of free will and related concepts of mistake, duress and fraud.»

Q: Additionally, you note that the concepts of international law and human rights were developed by 16th-century Spanish scholastics such as Francisco de Vitoria. How might this fact be relevant to today’s discussions of international law, as well as the Holy See’s role in shaping international institutions?

Woods: People such as Francisco de Vitoria were convinced that international law, which codified the natural moral law in international relations, could serve to facilitate peaceful coexistence among people of disparate cultures and religions.

The idea of international law, as the Late Scholastics saw it, was an extension of the idea that no one, not even the state, was exempt from mora
l constraints. This idea ran completely contrary to the Machiavellian view that the state was morally autonomous and bound by no absolute moral standards.

While the idea of international law is morally indispensable and philosophically unimpeachable, there are practical difficulties associated with its enforcement by an international agency.

If the institution has no coercive powers it will be impotent; if it does have coercive powers then it, too, must be protected against and becomes a threat to the international common good.

There is also the risk that the organization will seek to go beyond mediation and peacekeeping and seek to intervene in the domestic matters of member states or to undermine traditional institutions in those states.

This, of course, is what has happened today, what with the radical politics on constant display at the United Nations. The Holy See’s role in international relations, it seems to me, is both to advance peace by means of its own initiatives, and to remain the great obstacle to the leftist social agenda put forth at typical U.N. conferences.

Q: It seems that over the last 40 or 50 years, Catholic contributions to art, literature and science have waned. Additionally, Catholic influence in the academy and other important cultural institutions has also declined. Why do you think this is the case?

Woods: This is a tough one to answer in brief, though I take it up to some extent in my book «The Church Confronts Modernity.» That book looks at the great vigor of the Catholic Church in America during the first half of the 20th century.

Here was a self-confident Church that engaged in healthy interaction with the surrounding culture without being absorbed by it.

Hilaire Belloc observed at the time that «the more powerful, the more acute, and the more sensitive minds of our time are clearly inclining toward the Catholic side.»

Historian Peter Huff notes that the Catholic Church in America «witnessed such a steady stream of notable literary conversions that the statistics tended to support Calvert Alexander’s hypothesis of something suggesting a cultural trend.»

According to historian Charles Morris, «Despite the defeat of Al Smith, American Catholics achieved an extraordinary ideological self-confidence by the 1930s, much to the envy of Protestant ministers.»

That self-confidence and sense of mission has, for a variety of reasons, diminished substantially since the 1960s.

It is dramatically urgent that Catholic intellectual and cultural figures regain that old confidence and sense of identity, for people need to hear the Church’s message more than ever. Pope Benedict XVI has made abundantly clear his displeasure with the moral condition of Western civilization and its need for redemption.

Simone Weil once wrote, «I am not a Catholic, but I consider the Christian idea, which has its roots in Greek thought and in the course of the centuries has nourished all of our European civilization, as something that one cannot renounce without becoming degraded.»

Western civilization seems to be learning that one the hard way.

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